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It's no secret that Hollywood simply did not (or could not) feature non-Caucasian actors in anything but stereotypical roles during the Golden Age. African-American actors were Mammies or Stepin Fetchits, Latino-American actors were Mexican bandits or hot-blooded 'bad' girls. Asian-Americans fared the worst. Either Caucasian actors stole their roles by having their eyes taped back to make them slanted, or real Asians were cast as pidgin-English speaking houseboys and laundresses, Fu Manchus or Evil Empresses...when they appeared at all. Daughter of the Dragon (1931) is a strange hybrid of Caucasians playing Asians and genuine Asian actors. It features the worst of Hollywood stereotypes but it also featured the beautiful and talented Anna May Wong.
Wong, who plays Princess Ling Moy, was born in Los Angeles in 1905 and against the wishes of her very conservative family, had been in films since 1919. She was the most popular Asian actor of her time and was constantly mentioned as one of Hollywood's most beautiful and best-dressed women. Shortly before she made Daughter of the Dragon, the shortage of good roles forced her to spend three years in Europe where she had greater success than in the United States. As a result, Wong had a hit Broadway play in 1930 which was an adaptation of Edgar Wallace's On the Spot. Returning to Hollywood in triumph, she was interviewed by Doris Mackie where she expressed her frustration with Hollywood, saying, "I was tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass!...We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization many times older than the West?" Ironically, the villain she described perfectly matched Fu Manchu, the subject of her next film Daughter of the Dragon. Paramount wanted to highlight Wong and allowed her to display her beauty and talent and she managed, as she often did, to rise above the material.
Daughter of the Dragon is yet another Fu Manchu tale. This time the evil Dr. Fu has sworn revenge on the British Petrie family, who he believes is responsible for the deaths of his wife and son in China twenty years before. Fu in this film is played by Warner Oland - a Swedish actor who attributed his slightly Asian appearance to his Russian grandmother who was of Mongolian descent. Oland is, of course, most famous for playing Charlie Chan in 20th-Century-Fox's highly successful film franchise until his death in 1938. Before he played Chan, Oland made a career out of playing different nationalities from Chinese to Japanese to Russian. He even played Al Jolson's disapproving rabbi father in The Jazz Singer (1927). The majority of his roles were as Asians and he had made several Fu Manchu films. Daughter of the Dragon would be his last in the series.
The film was based on the novel Daughter of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer, who created Dr. Fu Manchu. Paramount Studios paid him $20,000 for the screen rights to the book, which was then adapted into a script by Sidney Buchman, Lloyd Corrigan, and Monte Katterjohn. The production began at the end of June 1931 at a cost of about $250,000, which was a considerable sum in those days. As Graham Russell Gao Hodges wrote in Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend, "joining Anna May in star billing were Warner Oland as Fu Manchu and Sessue Hayakawa as Ah Kee. Anna May had worked with both men before. Oland had become a rising star as Charlie Chan, and Hayakawa had a very respectable star resume dating back to the early teens. Although Anna May and Hayakawa acted together earlier in her career, Daughter of the Dragon marked the first film featuring two major Asian stars. Also in the cast was Anna May's sister, Mary, who was making her film debut. It was good working with old friends. Like Anna May, Oland, who had played opposite her in Old San Francisco , had a good sense of humor. When he met Anna May on the first day of the shoot for Daughter of the Dragon, he asked her what they were playing this time. When she told him, he responded: 'Husband and wife? Father and Daughter? This is getting pretty incestuous.' Oland received the top salary for the picture, earning $12,000 at a rate of $2,500 per week. Anna May earned $6,000 for four weeks' work; Hayakawa earned $10,000. Paramount also spent a thousand dollars, far more than the costume costs of any other player, for Anna May's elaborate Chinese gowns. She was still underpaid in relation to her co-stars but her earnings were much better than before she traveled to Europe."
Daughter of the Dragon was released on September 5, 1931. The critics approved Wong's first talking picture role and the sumptuous sets were praised as highly as the acting. Hodges noted Paramount's ad campaign for the film: "Its press kit included some fascinating twists on the use of 'yellow faces'. In the publicity for a movie that included real Asian stars, Paramount perhaps made mindful of the spontaneous emulation of Anna May by English girls, suggested to local theater owners that they use publicity stunts to make Euro-American girls look Chinese. In an article entitled "Peroxide China Dolls Rare," Paramount's publicity office suggested hiring "a good-looking girl with flaxen tresses and a straight bob." Technicians were to use egg white or gum arabic to slant her eyes, wax her lashes black and to do "her hair swirled or looped with a tiny forehead pigtail, to make her more Chinesque." To advance this illusion of a blonde Chinese girl, add spiked heels to her shoes, and a silken robe or pajamas of Mandarin red, and put her in a store window. For added effect, she could be given a parasol. Then put advertisements for the movie on "the little packs, which are commonly strapped on the backs of Chinese ladies". The copy on the pack should read, "You never saw a Blonde Chinese Maid." Such a girl, the promoters assured, would bring "scads of attention to any store."
Like its publicity campaign, Daughter of the Dragon has elements that would make a modern audience cringe, but it also has Anna May Wong. She only appeared in seventeen sound films and only a handful of those as the star. For that reason alone it should be shown. Anna May Wong deserves to be seen. And remembered.
Director: Lloyd Corrigan
Screenplay: Lloyd Corrigan, Monte M. Katterjohn (both adaptation); Sidney Buchman (dialogue); Sax Rohmer (novel)
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp, John Leipold (both uncredited)
Cast: Anna May Wong (Princess Ling Moy), Warner Oland (Dr. Fu Manchu), Sessue Hayakawa (Ah Kee), Bramwell Fletcher (Ronald Petrie), Frances Dade (Joan Marshall), Holmes Herbert (Sir John Petrie), Lawrence Grant (Sir Basil Courtney), Harold Minjir (Rogers).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
The Internet Movie Database